Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

Why building coalition with migrant justice groups is critical for Hongkongers

Channeling all of our efforts into a single avenue puts Hongkongers at the mercy of a handful of self-interested politicians

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On Friday, Republican senator Ted Cruz single-handedly struck down the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act on the Senate floor, forcing the bill to be delayed until later next year. Unanimously approved by the House of Representatives and pushed for by Hong Kong diaspora activists since September in the wake of the national security laws (NSL) in Hong Kong, the bill would extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Hongkongers in the US—alongside those from other countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and South Sudan—and create a priority track for Hong Kong political dissidents to apply for refugee status. Cruz couched his opposition along partisan lines, calling the bill a “messaging bill” by the Democrats that would endanger the US’ national security by loosening immigration laws. He specifically cited an increased risk of Chinese espionage and Democrats’ failure to be “tough on China.” Bipartisan lobbyists like former Demosisto activist Jeffrey Ngo and Hong Kong Democracy Council’s Samuel Chu have expressed their discontent at the legislator, seen by many in the movement as one of the strongest advocates for Hong Kong’s struggle. 

Cruz’s last-minute betrayal is no surprise, especially for those familiar with the US’ checkered foreign policy record: the Democrats are not exempt from this, but far-right politicians like Cruz have consistently demonstrated the extreme lengths to which the US has consistently betrayed democratic movements and activists worldwide. Recently, Trump’s rescinding of TPS for Haitian and Salvadorean migrants and withdrawal of resources for Kurdish allies—leaving them to the whims of Turkish aggression and jihadist violence—are good examples. Rather than an exception to the rule, Cruz’s decision offers a glimpse into the Republicans’ strategy on Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong is just a pawn for amplifying a larger, racist geopolitical struggle that would spell only further oppression for everyday Hongkongers, Chinese people, and many others. The US state’s loud support for Hongkongers in the past year reaches a predictable limit when the issue touches on the logic of borders and immigration—aspects that would materially benefit Hongkongers but that Democrats and Republicans have been rolling back for years. 

In particular, fear-mongering about China and policing the US’ borders from refugee flows (that US foreign policy itself has helped create) have long been the pillars of the Republicans’ agenda. With the ebbing of the movement in Hong Kong, they have no hesitation in prioritizing the US’ geopolitical interests to contain China’s rise over the lives of Hongkongers by appealing to a racially-charged rhetoric of national security; it is under this logic that Cruz persistently mobilizes a purported fear of letting in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spies to promote the Republican Party’s broad agenda to attack human rights, among other domestic systemic issues.

As Hongkongers, we should be familiar with a regime’s tactics to suppress democratic rights by using national security as a bludgeon. In reality, there are already existing laws that address actual Chinese espionage concerns, and the refugee route requires having been arrested or charged for one’s role in last year’s protests, making the risk of infiltration minimal. The US right has managed to kill two birds with one stone: “supporting” Hongkongers just enough to agitate against China to pose as a champion of human rights, and mobilizing the same fear-mongering against China to justify withdrawing crucial resources for Hongkongers when the situation is at its most desperate. 

Ted Cruz’s cynical act is not due to a single tactical mistake by diaspora activists; rather, his betrayal calls into question the entire strategy of focusing solely on a political organ such as US Congress.

In reality, Cruz’s cynical act is not due to a single tactical mistake by diaspora activists; rather, his betrayal calls into question the entire strategy of focusing solely on a political organ such as US Congress that at best offers only gestural support to Hongkongers when the political winds are right, and actively discarding them at worst. There have been many warning signs. Trump himself has praised Xi on multiple occasions, especially when easing up on the trade war would turn toward his favor, and telling President Xi privately that creating detention camps in Northwest China was “exactly the right thing to do.” He has also publicly threatened to veto last year’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA). The heightening of the so-called “new Cold War” would continue to bode ill for all oppressed peoples in and around the two superpowers’ orbits of power. We must recognize that both countries operate on the same global neoliberal and colonial logic that thrives on a fundamental denial of human rights. 

Reaction on LIHKG, the prominent online messageboard for protestors, varied widely from labelling Cruz as part of the “deep state,” to praising him for putting US national security first, to blaming “left plastics” (a pejorative frequently attributed to those whose naive idealism gets in the way of pragmatic politics and mainstream discourse) for causing Republicans displeasure, to further leaps of logic about Cruz’s long game of rejecting this “weak” bill and pressing for a better one in the future. Such varied attempts to rationalize Cruz’s withdrawal of support are understandable to the extent that they struggle to re-insert an unexpected betrayal into the popular framework of the US as the only ally powerful enough to aid Hong Kong in resisting China—a narrative Cruz was more than happy to exploit during last year’s protests.

Though this framework has made all the more sense under the crushing immediacy of NSL, Cruz’s actions have thrown its internal faultlines into relief. The truth is, we cannot think of the US as a neutral counterweight to Chinese authoritarianism. While Cruz stands opposed to other Republican senators who are in support of the legislation, what we have seen is that US legislators, each informed by a diverse array of interests and priorities, negotiate their own relationship in support of an increasingly bipartisan anti-China agenda in which Hong Kong mainly serves as a throwaway chip at different moments. In other words, Cruz’s betrayal is only another instance in which Hongkongers’ uncritical loyalty to certain politicians and lobbying efforts prove to be futile in the face of US state elites coldly negotiating their own interests with or against their Chinese counterparts.

This does not mean that we must give up on organizing for support for Hongkongers in the US and beyond, but we need a critical look at who our true and most effective allies are in what is an inevitably ideological conflict. The Republicans’ distaste for TPS is well-known, and Cruz’s decision puts us into the same boat as other migrant allies threatened by the GOP’s attacks in recent years. This refusal to expand refugee protections for Hongkongers by citing the fear of Chinese espionage operates on the same bordering logic that requires a feared outsider to define membership as an accepted insider. From Japanese Americans interned during World War II to the current panic over “Chinese scientists,” the US has used the “wily Oriental” trope to racially cast East Asians broadly as uniquely suited for espionage because of their supposed inscrutability. These xenophobic stereotypes are a well-known quantity: In other contexts, the US engaged in a decades-long campaign to spread disinformation by smearing all Latin American migrants as criminals, from drug dealers to rapists. 

The fate of this bill and the lobbying efforts behind it signal precisely the dangers of not cultivating these kinds of relationships—between grassroots and migrant-centered organizations accountable to their communities. 

As all such racial panics function as a rationale to limit immigration policies. But being in solidarity and in coalition with other migrant and refugee organizations is no abstract ideal; rather, it offers us a more secure position of strength to connect our different demands against state repression and exploitation across different peoples. The fate of this bill and the lobbying efforts behind it signal precisely the dangers of not cultivating these kinds of relationships between grassroots and migrant-centered organizations accountable to their communities. 

Luckily, we do not need to reinvent the wheel in looking into these new lines of support. Latin American migrants and community groups have spent decades developing resources for refugees and other immigrants from their war-torn home countries. “Sanctuary policies” were developed and gained traction originally in the 1980s especially by Salvadorean activists. What began as mobilizing community-wide support networks through churches and local mutual aid programs eventually expanded today into national political demands in the limelight of the political debate in coalition with a variety of civil society organizations from labor unions to other advocacy groups.

New student-led groups like the International and Immigrant Student Workers Alliance (IISWA) can provide avenues to advocate for the rights of Hongkonger and other student workers. In the context of increasingly stringent border controls, and the failure to provide reprieve in the case of Hongkongers, sanctuary policies, both in the form of government policies and community-led initiatives, mitigate fears around detention and deportation, while ensuring that undocumented migrants can still access necessary services and resources, such as healthcare.

We can pivot to learning, showing solidarity, and allying with such demands for sanctuary and immigration expansion with established community and even electoral infrastructures. Allying with these groups over Congressional figures like Cruz is not only the more principled position, but provides a much more secure foundation for transnational solidarity with Hong Kong. Geopolitical priorities between the US and China, for politicians on both sides of the aisle, can change swiftly with new diplomatic turns and economic winds, but migrant justice groups and other movement-based organizations always hold as central the interests of migrants and the under-privileged. The key shouldn’t be simply securing one or both sides of the aisle, but critically understanding how the two-party system in US politics obscures a more effective type of political engagement centered on mass movement-building, which articulates politics on the basis of grassroots social justice.

In addition, we must not see Chinese American communities and activist organizations as necessarily antagonistic to Hong Kong’s movement. It is undeniable that the CCP has sought to extend its influence in these milieus, but these groups are by no means a lost cause. In fact, the CCP is anxious to gather their support because it knows that an alliance between the Chinese diaspora and Hongkongers would pose a greater risk to its authority than any US sanctions or heightening of geopolitical tensions. Groups like Chinese Progressive Association—which broke with many Asian American organizations to support dissidents in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre—are at the forefront of organizing Chinese American communities, mobilizing widespread support, and influencing policy. 

It is within the GOP’s interest to maintain Hongkongers’ dependence in their own party and Congress more broadly, since such dependence funnels all Hongkonger activist energy into a single channel that can be opened or shut at will, as Cruz’s actions have shown.

The US Republican institution is broadly opposed to grassroots organizing as a whole, most recently undermining voting rights activists’ attempts to broaden access to voting across traditionally “blue” (Democrat) states. It is within the GOP’s interest to maintain Hongkongers’ dependence in their own party and Congress more broadly, since such dependence funnels all Hongkonger activist energy into a single channel that can be opened or shut at will, as Cruz’s actions have shown. Supposed allies of Hong Kong such as Cruz thus fear a potential alliance between Hongkongers and progressive organizations, and have promoted rampant disinformation smearing activists as CCP agents without evidence earlier this year.

In truth, Asian American leftists have demonstrated a continued commitment to activism against Chinese state oppression. In New York City, Asian American leftists pivotal in mobilizing Asian American solidarity with progressive city policies and the movement for Black Lives, also pushed to support the HKHRDA last year. Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance activists have also fought widespread community displacement of working-class communities by developers backed by many Chinese state-owned banks and capital.

A broad terrain of movements and coalitions exist for Hongkongers to develop new and improved “international lines” to most effectively combat the CCP’s power. By building coalitions with other oppressed communities, Hongkongers can benefit from and further strengthen existing migrant justice coalitions and demands. To be in solidarity with other oppressed communities means understanding the dead-end that is appealing to either political party and continuing to nest Hong Kong as a special interest concern within intra-party conflict in the Congressional chambers. In exchange, a whole ecosystem of solidarity awaits that can give us substantive solutions to aid Hongkongers and our struggles, not just a path of compromises and betrayals.